“BUT are they being formed for the real world?”
This was a question apparently posed to one of our friars by a parishioner after Mass a few weeks ago.
We are “they” – the student friars studying theology and philosophy, undertaking various forms of pastoral work and generally undergoing the Dominican order’s process of formation.
This question provoked rather a lively discussion around our dinner table.
It seemed to be asking whether, over the course of our formation, we are made aware of the realities of our world, or whether we focus exclusively on the use of the augmented diphthong in Koine Greek, Empedocles’ cosmogony and perfecting the psalm-settings for use at solemn vespers.
On the face of it, this may seem to be an eminently reasonable query, arising from a genuine concern as to the nature and quality of priestly and religious formation in our day and age.
And insofar as the query is indicative of that concern, it is to be commended. Yet the question itself contains an accepted, unspoken, underlying presupposition that is rather revealing.
There must be a “fake” world that corresponds with the “real” one.
It is well known to all the parishioners that we spend a large part of our time in study and prayer, so the question posed at the head of the article seems to suggest that – while those studies and prayer are all well and good – perhaps we would be better off spending our time focused elsewhere; on the concerns of the “real world”.
Unfortunately, this dichotomy implies that our prayer and study are indicative and constitutive of a “fake world”. And that is a position that as Christians – let alone religious – we cannot accept.
When the Irish immigrants came to Australia – “immigrants” here encompassing those who were either compelled to the colonies as a result of having startled some landlord’s sheep, as well as those who chose to come because staying on the Emerald Isle meant starving to death – they poured much of their lives and money into building beautiful churches and into building up the Church in this country.
The same has been true of each successive wave of immigration over the course of our nation’s short history – Germans, Italians, Vietnamese, Sri Lankans, Lebanese, Filipinos.
And the response of those not of our faith in each successive generation has always been exactly the same: they see the activity and priorities of these immigrants as a monstrous waste of money. And indicative of how priest-ridden Catholics are.
Many people, viewing these actions from their own non-Catholic perspective, felt that such attitudes and actions were out of touch with the “real world”.
Yet those heroic and generous generations of people were bearing witness to the fact that they were not, ultimately, what they first appeared to be. They appeared, objectively, to be poor, over-worked, under-paid members of a permanent proletariat. But their lives and actions were signs that they were actually citizens of heaven. (Philippians 3:20)
They were the brothers and sisters of the saints whose images shone out from the stained glass; they were Children of God. (Galatians 3:26)
Their houses might have been shacks, but their true homes were elsewhere.
While I was a novice in Hong Kong, we were released from the convent every Sunday afternoon between lunch and vespers; this gave us a few hours to explore the city and surrounds if we so wished.
There are about 130,000 Filipinas living and working in Hong Kong – Sunday is their day off.
Having attended Mass, they tend to congregate under every bridge and overpass, on any bench or piece of spare grass.
They usually have a few scraps of old cardboard to sit upon, and bring along some cooked food to share. And I have never seen people enjoying themselves so much – they sing and dance and talk the day away – cardboard apparently makes for a very comfortable sleeping-mat.
To me, those ladies who work for a pittance and under generally appalling conditions epitomise the joy and dedication that are the hallmarks of a citizen of heaven.
They live in the real world, and they also know what is ultimately most important.
The sort of hectic, perpetual cycle of activity within which we are all now encouraged and expected to live is what constitutes the “real world” for many people.
When they see us pondering at our desks and contemplating in the church they conclude that we are “wasting” our time.
Yet, as put by a former Master of the order, Fr Timothy Radcliffe: “A culture of activism means not just that we are all too busy, but that we are busy doing what is not perhaps so important”.
Thus if there are individuals who feel that we ought to be more engaged with the “real world” over the course of our religious and priestly formation – and they mean that phrase in precisely this sense of unbridled activism – and, furthermore, that such “real world” concerns are to be privileged over prayer and study, then it would seem that we friars are simply continuing in the footsteps of our brothers and sisters of centuries past.
We are just as misunderstood by our contemporaries as they were by theirs when they gave their lives and money to the Church.
And there is nothing about that which will cause us to lose any sleep.
Yet in all fairness I am sure there was a further concern that underlay the initial query concerning our formation.
In light of all the court cases, media stories, films and – most recently – the Royal Commission into child abuse, I am sure many people are genuinely concerned about whether we who are in training for the priesthood are being adequately prepared and examined with regard to all things celibate. And that is a concern I can only applaud.
In response, however, I can answer that – in the entire history of the Church – I do not think there has been a generation of clergy and religious that has been made as aware of the joys and pitfalls, theory and practice behind celibacy, chastity, continence and virginity as we have.
We have classes; we facilitate discussion groups; we attend seminars. We have read and analysed policy documents. We have been personally questioned rather closely.
Indeed, upon returning from Hong Kong we were sent on a week-long celibacy seminar that was attended by all the Dominican and Capuchin students in Melbourne, the seminarians from various seminaries in this part of the country, as well as the Oratorians from Brisbane.
A relative of mine, upon learning that we were attending a celibacy seminar posed a question that might be occurring to some of you: “How can you spend a week just talking about celibacy?”
My response was to ask him to explain celibacy; or even the difference between celibacy, chastity, continence and virginity; or the theoretical bases behind the practical implications resulting from a life of professed chastity.
His own deafening silence answered his question. There is a great deal to understand and discuss insofar as this particular topic is concerned.
Yet in writing these lines I can almost hear my inquisitive relative pointing out that there is more to “it” than theory and classes. Well, obviously.
I would suggest, however, that if we do not understand the theory behind the praxis, we have a piglet’s chance in a butcher’s shop of living fulfilled and fulfilling lives of celibate chastity in the future.
We have even less of a chance of living those ideals in the present if we have already taken vows to that effect, as I and ever other professed religious in the country have done.
It is absolutely necessary, I am sure everyone will agree, that our formation be particularly rigorous when it comes to these matters: that we fully understand for what and to what we are committing ourselves.
In this regard, our formation is about as “real world” as anyone could possibly wish.
Apart from celibacy, however, and above and beyond our immediate, personal formation with regard to religious life and priesthood, there are obviously many other “real world” concerns that could have been implied by the original question; concerns that highlight the pain, suffering and evils entailed in almost any life lived in this world.
In that regard the question is rather more easily answered.
We are not hermits: we would have to live under rocks – or among them – to be ignorant of the many and varied ills and joys of our world.
Not only are we daily bombarded by a firestorm of criticism on almost every aspect of our religious lives – from what we are doing to how we are doing it – we are also exposed to news media when they occasionally cover other topics as well.
We read the papers, watch the news, listen to the radio.
In fact, as a convent community of nearly 20 friars who daily swap news and share common meals, I would venture to say that, through our various sources, we are exposed to more news stories – more horror and more joy – than the average person, however “real world” their focus.
And it is not only over our daily bread that we are drawn to the cares and concerns of our brothers and sisters.
We pray in common multiple times every day and, come the moment during lauds or vespers when extempore prayers of intercession are called for, individual friars invariably implore the mercy of Our Lord on behalf of those suffering in Yemen, or for the deceased and sick of our parish, or for politicians considering legislation on assisted suicide.
For new-born babies and their families, for orphans and for widows – we pray daily for any and every need, covering all manner of disasters and evil, triumphs and joys in our world.
When reading the paper and watching the news, swapping stories or letters, sharing articles and opinions we are forever looking for people in need of our prayers.
I personally believe our attitude is more “real world” than most.
We do not compartmentalise our “faith” and our “real lives” – we try to live our faith.
This means we are stuck in the thick of the mess of the world, in compassion with our brothers and sisters all over the world – and next door – while firmly and prayerfully fostering the higher goal of us all; advancing our common cause for citizenship in heaven.
George Bernanos once wrote that, “Holiness is an adventure, in fact the only one there is. Anyone who has understood that has penetrated to the heart of the Catholic faith”.
When it comes to our formation, we are essentially being formed for the “real world” within which we all undertake our adventure of faith.
We try not to compartmentalise our lives of study, prayer, service – our contemplation from our action.
We try to live as chaste, poor, obedient friars formed for the mission of preaching the liberating Word of God; and we try to do so fully alive to the troubles and joys experienced by our brothers and sisters around the world, in our parish and even within the priory.
Even at our desk or in our choir stalls we are not separated from “real world” concerns because they are all ultimately labours undertaken in the great vineyard of the Lord, advancing our common cause for a return to our true home – the Kingdom of Heaven.
By Br Sebastian Condon